The Ties That Bind

08.20.14

Michael Brown, Gaza, and Muslim Americans

It’s never been exactly cozy between American Muslims and African Americans. But with Ferguson—and Gaza—that’s changing.

The Muslim-American community of which I’m part hasn’t been great in standing up with and for African Americans. A lack of empathy and racism are the main culprits. What makes this especially astonishing is that 30 percent of the Muslim-American population is African-American. You would think that there would be natural alliances, but that hasn’t been the case. At least not up until now.

The shooting of Michael Brown and the heavy-handed response by the police that followed has struck a nerve among Muslims. It has motivated American-Muslim leaders to speak out publicly in ways we hadn’t seen before on police misconduct directed against African Americans.

Why? A few reasons. But one that can’t be discounted is Gaza. More specifically, young Palestinians who commented on Twitter about the shooting of Michael Brown drew direct connections between the two.

For example, Inas Safadi, a Palestinian living in Gaza, tweeted: “Revolution of #Ferguson, can’t be prouder of these people who won’t let their son’s blood go for nothing #MikeBrown.” Another tweeted a photo of himself holding a sign that read, “The Palestinian people know what means to be shot while unarmed for your ethnicity” #Ferguson #justice.”

Other Palestinians, including a doctor, even offered advice via Twitter to the protesters in Ferguson on how to deal with the tear gas being fired at them based on their own experiences with Israeli security forces. Comments included, “Don’t keep much distance from the police, if you’re close to them they can’t tear gas. To #Ferguson from #Palestine.” Another tweeted: “Always make sure to run against the wind/to keep calm when you’re teargased, the pain will pass, don’t rub your eyes! #Ferguson Solidarity.”

The support by Palestinians for Brown and the protesters is not surprising. Oppressed people often stand together in solidarity. That’s why it has amazed me and so many other Muslim Americans that we don’t see broad support in our community for the broader struggles of African Americans. Instead, I have personally heard, from Muslim friends who are black, tales of racism directed toward them by other Muslims, such as being made to feel unwelcome when visiting a new mosque or not having more leadership positions in national Muslim organizations.

A growing number of Muslim Americans are pushing back against this type of racism. One is Margari Aziza Hill, an African-American Muslim who serves as programming director of the Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative. Hill told me that after Trayvon Martin was shot in 2012, she called on her fellow Muslims to take a stand demanding justice but was met with silence.

Hill told me that after Trayvon Martin was shot in 2012, she called on her fellow Muslims to take a stand demanding justice but was met with silence.

The lack of empathy by some Muslims toward African Americans stems in part from fact that certain immigrant Muslims bring with them the negative views of blacks they learned in the countries of their birth. Hill also added, not in a way to defend the racism but to discuss its causes honestly, that Muslims who own stores in black neighborhoods often interact only with black people of lower socioeconomic status, some of whom are criminals. Thus, they define all blacks by this small section of the community.

Conversely, she noted that some African Americans are hostile to Muslims who own liquor stores in their communities. They see these liquor stores as another example of non-black-owned businesses exploiting their community.

But Hill has seen positives changes of late, as have I. In New York City, Muslims have increasingly been working with African Americans on issues of police brutality and racial profiling. For example, Muslim organizations are actively involved in mobilizing people for the August 23 march demanding justice for Eric Garner, an unarmed black man recently killed when NYPD officers placed him in an illegal chokehold.

And with respect to Michael Brown, the community responded in ways that neither Hill nor I have seen before. The St. Louis Chapter of the Council on America-Islamic Relations (CAIR) sent a letter to the Brown family signed by the leaders of the 18 Islamic Centers in the area representing more than 100,000 Muslims. In it, they expressed their condolences and called for justice, noting: “We know that unarmed black men are killed at an alarming rate in this country.”

And the national CAIR office urged imams across the country to discuss the shooting of Michael Brown and racial equality in their Friday sermons, asserting that “Muslims have the responsibility to stand for those who are marginalized or suffer injustice.” To this end, CAIR has invited Rev. Al Sharpton to be the keynote speaker at its 20th anniversary dinner to be held next month.

ISNA, another prominent Muslim-American organization, released a statement on August 13 calling for a federal investigation into the shooting of Michael Brown. The group also demanded justice for other unarmed black men recently killed by law enforcement, including Eric Garner and Ezell Ford, a mentally ill man in Los Angeles who “was shot several times in the back while he was laying down.

This evolution within the Muslim community is also linked to the way we have been treated by the police. We have been the target of widespread profiling and surveillance by the NYPD simply because of our faith. Nothing helps you relate to the experiences of others who have been victims of police misconduct like being a victim of it yourself.

So is this the tipping point for Muslims to join with people of color in their fight on issues from police misconduct to immigration reform? Only time will tell. But Hill is optimistic, as am I. She remarked that seeing an increasing number of Muslims standing up for African Americans makes her proud that 20 years ago she converted to Islam.